Into the Fog: Icelandic Land and Lore

by Janni Lee Simner

I step out of my rental car, into a land of gray stone, dry moss, and ceaseless wind. The wind blows more often than not in Iceland, and when it does, it always feels ceaseless.

I’m in the Strandir region of Iceland’s West Fjords, an area long associated with sorcery and uncanny happenings, and I’ve pulled over to read an interpretive sign. Selkolla’s Stone, the English–language section of the sign reads, and it goes on to recount a bit of Icelandic folklore.

Eight centuries ago, the story goes, a laborer and a maid were charged with the task of bringing a newborn child to the nearest priest for Christening. During their journey, they grew distracted by their mutual attraction for one another, so they laid the babe down on one side of a large boulder and made love on the other side. Once their lust was satisfied, they tried to fetch the infant back again, only to find that the child had an evil look about it and showed no signs of life. The couple fled the scene; searchers later returned to look for the infant, but it was gone.

It turned out an evil spirit had entered the child. Soon after that spirit, grown to a monster with a seal–shaped head (Selkolla literally means “Seal’s Head”) began stealing sheep and terrorizing the region. The monster’s attacks continued unchecked until the bishop Guрmundur the Good fought Selkolla off with prayers and charms, forcing her to sink down into the earth.

I look up from the sign, across a rocky slope. I see a large boulder, its edges standing out in stark relief against gray slope and gray sky. Selkolla’s stone, still standing 800 years later.

I shiver, not because of the wind. It happened here, I think. In this very spot. The veil between past and present — between story and history — seems suddenly thin.

Perhaps I’ve read this story before; if I did, it left little impression. Back home, five thousand miles away from Iceland and Strandir, I have a couple of books filled with Icelandic folktales. Without realizing it, I’d always mentally set those folktales — perhaps all folktales — in a sort of generic long ago and far away. Yet now I’m reading something that feels very different:a story about the uneven ground on which I stand. This stone, I think. This slope. This mountain pass.

I’m a fantasy writer. I know well enough that every story has a setting. This shouldn’t surprise me.

It does surprise me.

Yet I was drawn to Iceland in part because another portion of the country’s literature — its family sagas — are so strongly bound to their places. I somehow missed the sagas in my high school and college literature classes, and instead discovered them just five years ago, during my first trip to Iceland, when I spent the long evenings — so far north, the summer sun doesn’t set until around midnight — reading a battered old translation of Njálґs Saga.I was maybe halfway through the saga when I visited Þingvellir, the original site of Iceland’s thousand–year–old Alþing, or parliament.

Þingvellir is located in a rift valley, where the North American and European tectonic plates meet, and where they are pulling a couple centimeters farther apart every year — a breathtaking pace, by geological standards. As I walked through the valley, I knew I walked through a place of power. Cracks riddled the mossy gray earth, and blocky stone walls stood facing one another. Looking at those walls, I could almost see how they must have fit together once, before the earth forced them apart. When I closed my eyes, I could almost feel the earth continuing to move beneath my feet.

In Njál’s Saga, Þingvellir is the site of violent conflicts and fateful meetings. When I opened my eyes again, I could almost see those conflicts playing out before me. It took no effort at all to believe this was the ground where opposing parties battled over the burning of the farmer Njál in his home; or that here Hallgerður Longlegs, whose beautiful hair was long enough to wrap around her like a veil, asked Njál’s friend Gunnar to tell her about his travels, setting in motion events that would help lead to the burning.

At Þingvellir, I felt as if the past breathed over my shoulder. I felt as if the saga characters I’d read about were more real than the bored–looking tourists around me. When I heard one of those characters talking to me, I didn’t laugh, as I might have back home; I stopped and wrote down her words.

I know that one has to be careful about taking the sagas too literally. They’re a strange mix of history and fiction, born out of real events that took place around a thousand years ago, yet not written down until a couple hundred years after that. No one knows how much the stories were changed by centuries of oral tradition; no one knows what liberties were taken by the anonymous writers who eventually committed those stories to parchment, and to the form we know them in today.

Yet during my visit to Þingvellir I believed down to my bones that if the events I’d read about hadn’t happened, events like them had. Later, back home, I’d have time for questioning and doubting. Just then, I knew only that this torn and rifted land was a place where unsettled events had to have occurred, that its geological and historical tensions were intimately entwined. Move the events that had happened here elsewhere, and those events would change, in small ways or in large ones.

This is as true for any contemporary fantasy novel as it is for a thousand–year–old saga: when you change the setting, you change the story. I knew that. Yet walking through Þingvellir five years ago — and standing beside Selkolla’s stone last summer — I learned it again. Long ago is not the same as far away. Of course the sagas and folktales, both of which have their basis in things that happened once, are strongly bound to their places.

If there isn’t a boulder, no baby can be left unguarded beside it. Stories happen where they happen for a reason. In Iceland I discovered that this is as true for a folktale rendered with a few sure strokes as for any multi–volume fantasy series.